Time we tapped collective energy to tackle inequalities in HE

Reflecting on a year of TASO, Omar Khan argues that doing evaluation better could be the key to uniting the sector and addressing HE participation and outcomes gaps

Omar Khan is Director of the Centre for Transforming Access and Students Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO).

Among those of us working in higher education there is near universal agreement that the participation gap between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers remains too high.

While progress has undoubtedly been made in terms of increasing the total number of students from underrepresented backgrounds getting a place, the gap has remained stable over the past decade or so.

Once such students are at university, inequalities persist which reduces their chances of achieving their best, leading to further barriers once they’ve left higher education and are looking to make their way in the world of work.

TASO has a very specific remit to increase the evidence base on what works to tackle these inequalities, and to upskill the sector to conduct the kind of research and evaluation that will make this possible.

Ultimately, the importance of addressing these persisting inequalities is the reason every single individual in our team is so passionate about their work.

Energy and passion

TASO recently celebrated our first birthday, and with it we hosted our first in-person annual conference. I’ve had the unique experience of leading the charity throughout an almost entirely remote first year of independence, and so the chance to meet people in person and feel the buzz of a face to face event again was all the more special.

I always imagined TASO would be an organisation that facilitated open, honest and at times even uncomfortable conversations about how best to eliminate the equality gaps in HE, and provide the sector with the tools and resources to focus on what actually works when approaching these challenges. But while we’ve been busily beavering away in the background and making progress in our research activities, our event was the first time I really felt this become a living, breathing reality.

The collective energy in the room was palpable, the passion and expertise, the strength of knowledge and diversity of opinion. As our chair Eunice Simmons stated so eloquently in her opening address, “while we might not all agree on how we get there, we all share a passion for tackling inequalities in the sector, and that unites us.”

Throughout the day, I was struck by how different the discourse can be in person when compared to in an online space. There is always going to be disagreement, but something about being in a room with a person, or indeed on a panel with someone you disagree with, seems to make the discussion that bit more respectable (usually!).

It was heartening to see David Willetts on a panel with educational sociologist Sol Gamsu, former Lincoln vice chancellor Mary Stuart, and NUS vice president higher education Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, disagreeing in a spirited but polite way about the impact of tuition fees reforms a decade ago.

Evaluation matters

Ever since John Blake was appointed as Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students, “evaluation, evaluation, evaluation” has been at the forefront of people’s minds. John has emphasised why evaluation is such a priority for him, and how his experiences living through the transformation in schools policy over 15 years have shaped his views on this.

There is a growing consensus that effective evaluation is needed, even if there was some disagreement on how effective evaluation could and should look (independent evaluation vs peer-reviewed internal evaluations was a particular talking point).

That’s where TASO can help. Our aim is to provide practitioners with the tools and support they need to conduct their own evaluations, and produce and synthesise evidence of what works in a way they can easily digest and, crucially, start to apply to their practice. Our evidence toolkit is a great starting point, bringing together the current body of evidence in one place.

At the same time, our extensive (and growing) bank of free evaluation guidance resources is aimed at helping institutions not just talk about effective evaluation but feel empowered to start doing it. With our range of research publications, events, webinars and guidance to come in the coming months, we’re chipping away at the evidence gaps one project at a time. Following the success of our conference, we’re feeling invigorated about how best to get these findings out to our colleagues in the sector. After all, our work ultimately means very little if we’re unable to engage with people delivering on access, participation and student success.

Passionate, committed people striving to change something they see as wrong in society are unlikely to agree on everything. But we believe that by striving to ground our debates in robust evidence, research and a more effective approach to evaluation, we can build on the existing consensus that equality gaps are too wide and too persistent. Channelled in the right way, the collective energy of those who attended our conference can be a powerful tool for eliminating inequalities in HE for the benefit of students. Ultimately that’s what matters to us all.


At Access all areas – getting in and getting on we’ll assess the current access and participation landscape and consider what will need to change in terms of outreach, information, advice, and guidance, partnerships and pathways between providers, and on-course student support to sustain and grow education opportunity in the years ahead. On Tuesday 10 May at the Mermaid in London: register now.

One response to “Time we tapped collective energy to tackle inequalities in HE

  1. The TASO conference was interesting but one thing that was striking to me was how white the audience was. I don’t know much about the underlying discipline that does research in this area so don’t know if this was normal?

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